Colour coding in America

The Invention of the White Race
June 5, 1998

Race has long confounded self-congratulatory readings of US culture, and in the 1990s it has once again forced Americans to look into the mirror of their past, but this time the reflected image often is not black but white. Whereas recent writings on whiteness in America examine the ephemera of popular culture, Theodore W. Allen argues that the white race was invented in the class struggles peculiar to the monocultural production of tobacco in colonial Virginia.

In this second instalment of a two-volume study, Allen reiterates his disdain for the "psycho-cultural" argument of Carl Degler and Winthrop Jordan that slavery resulted from an "unthinking decision" rooted in English culture's innate racial prejudice against blackness, antedating colonisation. He aligns himself more closely with the "socio-economic" argument of Edmund Morgan, which saw the transition to slavery as a result of its growing cost-effectiveness and the desire of planters to solidify their control over poor white workers, but chastises him for exaggerating the latter's subsequent social mobility.

Allen argues that the bourgeoisie's need for a "buffer social control stratum" finally led Virginia to the adoption of racial slavery and, in an act of class division, the co-optation of free proletarian whites to police this new unfree, racialised labour force. The consequences - rigid racial division and working-class fragmentation - made America exceptional.

Virginia's development was driven by the twin problems of labour supply and control. Founded for free Englishmen, the colony was frustrated in its efforts to make them work, or to convert native American Indians into a servile labour force. A tobacco boom led the bourgeoisie to transform agriculture to capitalist production through a plantation system, but falling tobacco prices and a shortage of workers meant that a cheap, fixed labour source was required. In the 1620s, European bonded servants, trading four-plus years of labour for the passage over, filled the requirement. Such "chattel-bond servitude" was a significant departure from the English master-servant precedent in that the labour power was owned and could be sold on.

Over the next few decades, servants, already stalked by high mortality, were hounded further by planters seeking to extract more profit by extending their labour time and intensifying the pace of work, while ordinary family life was also denied them, making for combustible class relations. Servants resisted in a variety of ways, from theft to fornication to running away, contributing to much social instability, to which the opening up of the English slave trade in the 1660s provided a long-term solution. But it was the breakdown of ruling-class social control in Bacon's rebellion of 1676, when bonded servants transformed an inter-elite squabble into a revolt for freedom, which catalysed the invention of race.

With the uprising repressed, the very real threat of social instability remained. The bourgeoisie responded gradually by supplanting class consciousness with race consciousness through the increased importation of African chattel labour and the "deliberate" erection of legal walls between whites and blacks. Europeans who did not own bond labourers, though, had little prospect of social mobility, and instead were expected to be content with liberty alone, the birthright of the poorest Englishman, gilded with the honour of being "white". This counterfeit currency bought the social stability necessary to bourgeois profit, a bargain re-enacted in every plantation colony.

Allen makes a powerful and persuasive argument for the class roots of racial oppression in America. But the book is not as revolutionary as the author himself would like to believe, extending and radicalising Morgan's work rather than overturning it. Moreover, as with other contemporary historians writing on whiteness, there is a relative neglect of blacks. As a book concerned with race and the genesis of slavery in which African-Americans only figure tangentially, it unintentionally mirrors the racial divide it purports to explain. Nonetheless, this volume is a real tour de force, a welcome return to empiricism in this subfield of race studies, and a timely reintroduction of class into the discourse on American exceptionalism.

Peter Way is professor of American history, University of Sussex.

The Invention of the White Race: Volume Two, the Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America

Author - Theodore W. Allen
ISBN - 1 85984 981 4 and 076 0
Publisher - Verso
Price - £45.00 and £15.00
Pages - 372

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